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Lev Tov, Seyfer

Ethical work in Yiddish. The Seyfer lev tov (Book of the Good Heart) was first printed in Prague in 1620. Nothing is known about its author, Yitsḥak ben Elyakim of Posen (Poznań). The book has 20 chapters that present appropriate Jewish behavior from a religious perspective; it deals with the conduct of the Jew in the religious context (mainly the synagogue) as well as in everyday life.

Although the author draws from various sources, his main source is Sefer ha-musar by Yehudah Khalats (a sixteenth-century abridgement of Sefer menorat ha-ma’or by Yisra’el ibn al-Nakawa), to which Seyfer lev tov is linked in both structure and content. The author also notes his own reliance on Reshit ḥokhmah by Eliyahu de Vidas and Arba‘ah turim by Ya‘akov ben Asher. The similarities between Seyfer lev tov and its sources, especially Sefer ha-musar, misled its few researchers into thinking that the text is merely a compilation of its sources, rather than what it actually is: an original ethical work in Yiddish bearing innovative traits.

Seyfer lev tov aimed to present to its readers—in the spirit of Jewish ethical books that had been created for the most part in the Sephardic dispersion—a clearly Ashkenazic ethical work. Accordingly, Yitsḥak ben Elyakim wrote his composition in Yiddish, edited and altered the contents of his sources, and abundantly added to them to make them appropriate for his intended audience. His additions included references to prominent personalities from the Ashkenazic world (for example, Gershom ben Yehudah Me’or ha-Golah; Yehudah Ḥasid; and Maharal of Prague, Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el) and their beliefs; the presentation of viewpoints prevalent in contemporary Ashkenaz; references to realia (whose Polish context still requires research); as well as laws and minhagim (customs) practiced there at the time of the book’s composition. The text is thus clearly intended for the Ashkenazic Jew and deals with his life as well as with the routines of his community and its relations with the surrounding gentile world.

Seyfer lev tov achieved wide popularity. In subsequent generations, its reading was recommended by many, among them Shabetai Sheftel ben Yesha‘yahu Horowitz (author of Vave ha-‘amudim), Yonatan Eybeschütz (author of Ya‘arot devash), Yonah Landsofer and Mosheh Ḥasid (both from Prague; authors of ethical wills and opponents of Sabbatianism), and Glikl of Hameln. Many of the recommendations mention it together with another ethical work in Yiddish—Seyfer brantshpigl by Mosheh ben Ḥanokh Altschul of Prague (first printed in Kraków; 1596)—which, while widespread, did not achieve the level of popularity of Seyfer lev tov, whose many editions were and continue to be published today. Its popularity can be best attested to by the Yiddish saying, “Tsum lev tov darf men nokh hobn a gut harts oykh” (In addition to [reading] the Lev tov, one must also have a good heart), a wordplay on the book’s title.

Suggested Reading

Max Erik, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur fun di eltste tsaytn biz der haskole-tkufe (New York, 1979), pp. 301–294; Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish be-Polin (Jerusalem, 1981), pp. 44, 122; Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 7, Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period (Cincinnati and New York, 1975), pp. 159ff.



Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen